Building codes are shifting and putting new demands on builders and product manufacturers to have better performance. Still, so much of the performance is actually the integration of the design and the products together in the home. Here, this Intelligencer article outlines how it all came together for the Harvard HouseZero project.

Like a lot of revolutionary command centers — Trotsky’s Mexico City retreat, for instance, or Bill Gates’s Los Altos garage — the two-story house at 20 Sumner Road in Cambridge, Massachusetts, looks a little out of date from the outside. It’s a handsome but unassuming place, built nearly a century ago and freshly shingled in blond wood, with a soon-to-be-weathered front porch and a New England dormer on the roof. A wheelchair ramp zigzags up a landscaped slope to the front door, one of the few signs of contemporary values noticeable from the street. Solar panels line the roof and a protruding metal frame shades each window like the visor on a baseball cap, but you might hardly notice those features as you hurry toward Harvard Yard, a few blocks away.

Nobody lives in Harvard’s HouseZero, unless you count the Ph.D. students who may spend the occasional night at their workstations. This office/lab/walk-in-computer/showcase houses the university’s Center for Green Buildings and Cities, and it would be hard to think of a more apt headquarters for a more urgent mission. Amid all the engineering whiz-bang designed to battle climate change, this wood-frame body freckled with sensors and veined with five miles of cable stands out for its self-evident simplicity and radical potential. Most other environmentally sensitive buildings rely on advanced machinery: hyperefficient air conditioners, motion-activated window shades, and so on. HouseZero dispenses with contraptions that refrigerate the house in summer or blast heat in winter. Maintaining a comfortable indoor temperature depends on an ingredient that most architecture forcibly exclude: fresh air.

On the day I meet the center’s director, Ali Malkawi, the temperature in what must have once been the house’s front parlor, now opened up into a warm, bright lounge, is a good 50 degrees higher than it is outside, the indoor air feels soft and serene, and our conversation is pillowed in quiet. Malkawi hired Snøhetta and the engineering firm Skanska to design the renovation, but in truth he is bored by its beauty. The cottony light and spa-like finishes, the perforated honeycomb enfolding the stairs, even the glass-walled pod tucked up under the eaves — all these are sops to those who judge his headquarters by what it looks like and how it behaves, rather than what it can teach. “Looking at it as a piece of architecture diminishes the building. It’s really an instrument for us to do research,” Malkawi says.

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